Screenplay Analysis Answer Key: The Autopsy of Jane Doe


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As Seen On

When you’re just starting to get the hang of recognizing plot turns and understanding story structure, it can be helpful to compare your answers and get a second opinion on how a particular story works.

So this week I’m back with an “answer key” – a quick breakdown of the basics for one of the screenplays I linked to last week in the first installment of the Learn Screenwriting By Reading Screenplays series.

(If you didn’t accept the reading challenge last week but would like to, you can still download and read the script before you peek at the answers below…)

Case study: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The Autopsy of Jane Doe was the most-downloaded from last week’s batch, so that’s the one we’ll use as our case study today. The script is written by Ian Goldberg & Richard Naing and was on the 2013 Black List.

From Wikipedia: “The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2016, and was released on December 21, 2016, by IFC Midnight. It grossed $6 million at the box office. The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes calls it ‘a smart, suggestively creepy thriller’“.

Last week we discussed identifying how a screenplay establishes the foundation pieces and how the structure creates a journey for the reader. So let’s examine those elements for our case study screenplay.

The screenplay foundation

Every screenplay needs a strong foundation. Without it, pieces or entire sections of a screenplay will begin to crumble.

The foundation of the story really comes down to: who wants what, why do they want it, and what’s stopping them? That gives you the protagonist, the story goal, and the main conflict.

When we’re thinking analytically – reading to learn – we want to identify these elements, but also think about how well they show up, and how the script conveys that information to us.

The foundation of The Autopsy of Jane Doe


Austin Tilden. We meet him on page 7, which might be a bit later than usual but this script uses a “teaser” opening which is common for the genre and can naturally push the introduction of the protagonist a bit later.

How do we know he’s the protagonist? Initially we may not be sure. When we meet him, we’re following along with both Austin and his father, Tommy, as we see them doing the work of an autopsy.

But by page 8 the script subtly puts us in Austin’s point of view and begins to ask us to empathize with him. He’s the underdog in the scene, we see how he relates to his father, and how he wants to achieve the standards Tommy sets.

In the next several pages we also spend more time with Austin, which helps put our main focus on him.

Story goal:

On page 22, Sheriff Burke tells Austin and Tommy:

I need to know how she died. Who she is. What she ate for breakfast —

‘She’ meaning Jane Doe, the mysterious, unidentified deceased woman who’s just been brought into their morgue.

That’s the goal that drives this story – perform the autopsy, find the answers to this woman’s identity.

What’s at stake? We know right away the relationship between Austin and Tommy hangs in the balance in a lot of ways. That gives the story some emotional stakes.

When Austin decides to stay and help with the autopsy instead of going to the movies with his girlfriend (and it’s not the first time, as she points out), that adds another layer of emotional stakes as well.

We also have the element of the job itself being on the line – the Sheriff, who they know well, is desperate and needs their help.

You might notice that these are some tricky stakes to establish. But without the emotional stakes, the story might have felt empty since the professional stakes aren’t all that compelling. And until the life-and-death stakes kick in later, we really need those emotional stakes to make us care about the characters and get invested in their experience.

Main conflict:

There isn’t a lot of real conflict early on. As they begin the autopsy, we don’t see anything definitely trying to stop them from completing that task. We get tension from the mystery, the time constraints, and from the general genre-spookiness, but it takes quite a while before we see there are supernatural forces in play and working against them.

Yet the story does work. Which goes to show that every story is unique with unique challenges and solutions.

Identifying the major plot points

To analyze whether the major plot points work or not, we want to think about:

    1. Whether they fulfill the story function, and
    2. Whether they create the desired effect on the reader.

So let’s identify the major plot points in The Autopsy of Jane Doe and see if they hit the mark.

Inciting Incident:

The Inciting Incident in this script is a bit unusual because it happens outside the “normal” page range, but it fulfills the function we’re looking for which is the most important part.

What is it? It’s when Sheriff Burke arrives with the body of Jane Doe. This event:

  • starts the story
  • gives us the “why now”
  • and is a problem Austin and Tommy will have to contend with.

This happens on page 18, which is a little later than we might expect – and maybe that threw off your analysis. Keep in mind it’s more important for a plot point to create the desired effect than to land on a particular page.

That said, sometimes the proportions and pace of a script can feel off if the major turns don’t land in the usual range. But notice that The Autopsy of Jane Doe does a lot to maintain the tension and pace in Act 1. We start with a teaser to pique our interest, there’s an orientation to the morgue and to autopsy procedure that’s compelling, and we have the internal struggle and relationship dynamics between Austin and Tommy.

Break into Act 2:

In reaction to that Inciting Incident, Austin decides to ditch his girlfriend and stay late at work to help Tommy with Jane Doe’s autopsy. The real turn from Act 1 to Act 2 is when all of the context surrounding the main conflict is solidified, e.g. on page 23 when we know what Sheriff Burke is asking of them, and we get the sense Austin and Tommy are embarking on this journey to resolve the main conflict together. We’re engaged in the mystery of the task and invested in the emotional stakes, so we’re rooting for them to succeed.


A few things happen at the Midpoint to compound the escalating conflict and stakes. The supernatural antagonist becomes more real and direct when:

The radio STATICS OUT, but just for a moment. The voice returns. But now it’s louder, its tone somehow… different. As if it’s talking directly to them –

     …one thing’s for sure. You’re not
     going anywhere.

Austin turns to Tommy. Did you hear that?

That happens on page 48. It’s also right around here that Austin says:

Dad… I think maybe we should get out of here.

So he has a new goal, which turns the story in a different direction. (If the protagonist changes story goals, it almost always happens at either the Midpoint or the Break into Act 3.)

It’s also here (page 49) that the men make a disturbing discovery in their “investigation” and see:

We RISE UP for a Birds-eye view of Jane Doe’s body.

Her skin is covered with the discolored marks Tommy and Austin have been seeing all night.

But they’re not just bruises.

From this angle, they connect, forming an unnatural PATTERN:

An ancient, insidious SYMBOL.

Scrawled onto the inside of her skin.

This reveals the nature of what they’re dealing with, which they now realize is bigger, scarier, more threatening than previously thought.

Then a couple of spooky supernatural things happen and Austin re-states his new goal: “We gotta get out of here.

All of this adds up to that feeling of increasing opposition and stakes that make us re-invest, re-engage, and lean in to find out what will happen next.

Break into Act 3:

On pages 73-75 Austin and Tommy discuss what their final plan of attack should be. Austin thinks they need to go back into the room and face Jane Doe. Tommy’s reluctant, but Austin finally convinces him:

This is our only shot. We figure out how she died, maybe we figure out why she’s doing this to us. And we use it against her. Use it to get out of here.

And with that we know what the characters intend to do in order to finally resolve the main conflict, once and for all.

And in the Climax:

Jane Doe takes over Tommy’s body and Austin must go up against his own “father” who appears intent on killing him. Then, in true horror movie fashion, the protagonist believes the main conflict is over – but the antagonist comes back for a final round. In this case – SPOILER – the antagonist wins and Austin dies too. And the movie ends as the “curse” of Jane Doe is passed on to the next unsuspecting victim.

In terms of function, this ending certainly closes the open loop – we know what Jane Doe is and we know who’s won. And it satisfies the genre appeal, as well, with that wicked hint of more to come.

Read screenplays to learn screenwriting

This exercise is intended to help you read to learn. That means reading screenplays analytically, examining and processing what you’re consuming. Always asking yourself, “Does it work? If so, how? If not, why not – what’s missing?

Let’s keep the learning going! If you ran your own analysis of the screenplay, what did you come up with that deviated from my answers here? Is there anything in this “answer key” that surprises you? What other questions about the foundation or structure do you have? Send them my way!

We’ll continue the Learn Screenwriting By Reading Screenplays series next week with a new screenplay and the next elements: Identifying Character Arc and Theme.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.